SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — No Republican Senate candidate has been as aggressive in using the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh as a political weapon as Josh Hawley, the Missouri attorney general who is in an intensely tight race against Senator Claire McCaskill.
A former Supreme Court clerk, Mr. Hawley made his first campaign commercial about control of the court, and he assailed Ms. McCaskill for refusing to say if she would support Judge Kavanaugh. And after the accusation of sexual assault against Judge Kavanaugh last week, Mr. Hawley denounced Democrats for staging an “ambush.”
Yet in Missouri and other politically competitive battleground states, leaders in both parties are increasingly doubtful that Mr. Hawley and other Republicans can wield the Kavanaugh nomination as a cudgel without risking unpredictable repercussions in the midterm elections.
With Judge Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, tentatively scheduled to testify this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and many women furious over President Trump’s attacks on Dr. Blasey, a Supreme Court nomination that was once seen as a political winner in many conservative-leaning states could, instead, rouse female voters and independents who otherwise may have cared little about the confirmation fight.
Suburban women are pivotal in this year’s campaign and many of them were already tilting toward Democrats because of their contempt for President Trump. If Republicans are too harsh in their questioning of Dr. Blasey, they risk inviting an even greater backlash at the ballot box in an election where their House majority is in peril and their one-vote Senate majority is teetering.
And with record numbers of women running for office, their voices and those of female voters could crescendo in highly competitive election-year states from Arizona to Florida to New Jersey in support of Dr. Blasey if she testifies as scheduled. Her story makes it far harder, Republicans say, for their candidates to treat Judge Kavanaugh as an unalloyed asset and excoriate Democrats who oppose him.
“I think the assault allegations neutralize the Kavanaugh issue,” said state Representative Jay Barnes, a Missouri Republican, echoing the private assessments of a wide range of G.O.P. leaders.
What alarms Republicans is that staunch defenses of Judge Kavanaugh, like the one made by Mr. Hawley, could haunt them if Dr. Blasey makes a compelling case before the committee. One Republican senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, has already come under political attack for describing Dr. Blasey’s allegation as “a hiccup” for Judge Kavanaugh.
And in a radio interview, Representative Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a Republican challenging Senator Heidi Heitkamp, minimized Dr. Blasey’s claims because, he said, “it was supposedly an attempt or something that never went anywhere.” (In a subsequent statement. Mr. Cramer said “any allegation of this nature should be taken seriously,” but that it is “hard not to be skeptical” in this case.)
As negotiations unfolded between Senate Republicans and Dr. Blasey about her testifying before Congress, some party officials were growing nervous about how President Trump and the largely male slate of Senate candidates were handling what could turn out to be political dynamite. Mr. Trump, breaking from a period of relative restraint, said Friday that Dr. Blasey would surely have reported her alleged assault to authorities if it “was as bad as she says” and a handful of Senate Republican candidates have minimized or dismissed her claims.
In Missouri, sexual misconduct is still fresh on the minds of voters following the scandal that drove former Gov. Eric Greitens from office earlier this year. And being tone-deaf on the treatment of women memorably hurt Ms. McCaskill’s Senate opponent in 2012, Todd Akin, who led in some polls until he said that women who suffer “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.
“If this is actually on TV next week, and women see she is telling the truth, that could be very, very persuasive,” said former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
John Danforth, the former Missouri Republican senator who was Justice Clarence Thomas’s chief Senate patron during his 1991 confirmation hearings, urged his former colleagues to have an outside counsel question Dr. Blasey if she does appear before the Judiciary Committee.
“Members of the Senate, especially in the MeToo era, have got to walk on eggshells,” Mr. Danforth said.
As for the current Missouri Senate campaign, Mr. Danforth, who is something of a mentor to Mr. Hawley, acknowledged that the “ jurisprudential issues’’ of policy and law had “been overtaken by this particular episode.’’
Few Democratic senators need an issue to cut their way as much as Ms. McCaskill. A wily political veteran, she is seeking a third term in a state that once fancied itself as America writ small but which has taken a sharp turn to the right in recent years — making her one of the most vulnerable of the 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in states Mr. Trump won.
Anticipating the president’s arrival for a rally with Mr. Hawley on Friday night, and determining there was nothing to gain by supporting Judge Kavanaugh, Ms. McCaskill announced her opposition to his confirmation. But instead of fully leaning on Dr. Blasey’s allegations as her rationale for voting no, Ms. McCaskill referred to them as “troubling” claims before explaining that she was uneasy about Mr. Kavanaugh’s views on unregulated political spending — or “dark money.”
It is no coincidence that Mr. Greitens was driven from office over claims of sexual assault and also faced intense scrutiny over his reliance on secret donors.
“People are anxious to clean this up,” Ms McCaskill said in an interview on her campaign bus a few blocks from Harry Truman’s old home in Independence, alluding to the flood of unrestricted money in politics (and perhaps other wrongdoing).
She predicted that Mr. Hawley would not inch away from Judge Kavanaugh unless Mr. Trump withdrew the nomination.
“He will be wherever the president is and he will not vary one inch from where the president is on anything, including Kavanaugh,” she said.
But Ms. McCaskill was not eager to press the Supreme Court issue. She is more focused on a populist Democratic agenda — health care, retirement security and the minimum wage — that has varied little from Truman’s days.
“This is a kitchen-table election,” she said, arguing that the crucial voters were not the political junkies watching Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow but those who prefer “Dancing With The Stars” and generally scorn politicians.
“I never thought the court issue was going to be a determining factor in this election,” Ms. McCaskill said.
On this assessment, as much as on any policy issue, she parts company with Mr. Hawley in a race that she says pits “a professor versus a street fighter.”
A constitutional lawyer and former law professor who was in the Federalist Society at Yale, Mr. Hawley said in an interview at a barbecue joint before the rally with Mr. Trump that he is “a true believer in the judicial conservative moment.”
He said he thinks Roe v. Wade was “wrongly decided” and that “getting that decision overturned would be the right thing.”
And arguing that Mr. Trump’s 18-point victory margin in Missouri two years ago was due in part to his pledge to appoint conservative judges, Mr. Hawley said: “It’s a big deal for voters in my state.”
So while he is careful to say he thinks Dr. Blasey should testify and be heard, he is very much on Judge Kavanaugh’s side.
“If it were true, it would be troubling but there’s not a lot of detail there,” said Mr. Hawley. “And he adamantly denies it. There’s no corroborating evidence.”
What was clear at the rally on Friday, which filled most of a college basketball arena, is that Republican activists stand squarely behind Judge Kavanaugh. Standing next to President Trump, Mr. Hawley hailed the president for nominating “judges who love the Constitution, judges who love our country — judges like Brett Kavanaugh.”
When Mr. Hawley praised Mr. Trump for fulfilling his vow to appoint “pro-Constitution judges,” he prompted a booming and extended ovation as well as chants of “Kav-a-naugh.”
Springfield is one of the most heavily religious parts of this state — home to the Assemblies of God church — and is in a region where Mr. Hawley must maximize his margins to make up for expected losses in Missouri’s heavily Democratic population centers: St. Louis and Kansas City.
This state was once the quintessential political bellwether, supporting only one losing presidential candidate between 1904 and 2004. Missouri, it was often said, was where east met west and north met south — and it touched as many states (eight) as any other in the country.
But former President Obama narrowly lost here in 2008 and the Democrats’ fortunes only grew worse in the next two presidential elections as the party suffered massive losses in what Missourians call outstate — the vast interior between the two big cities that stand on opposite borders. It is in this region where Mr. Trump remains most popular and where Mr. Hawley believes voters will rally behind somebody who will vote to confirm the president’s judges.
“Claire’s vote on Kavanaugh is going to hurt her there,” argued Peter Kinder, a Republican and former lieutenant governor. “Missouri is a pro-life state.”
But, at least for now, few casual voters list the Supreme Court as a top priority.
“I was out five hours yesterday, I didn’t have the Kavanaugh thing come up one time,” said Wes Epperson, a retired Teamster who has been canvassing for Ms. McCaskill in Independence.
What worries Republicans is whether that will change if Dr. Blasey testifies — and if Mr. Trump continue his criticism of another woman who claims to have been a victim of sexual abuse.
Asked if he had any advice about what the president should say about Ms. Blasey’s allegation, Mr. Danforth was succinct: “The less the better.”